Creating a Habitat Where Science Thrives
"There aren't a lot of places where you get the opportunity to design your own building and move in. It's a once-in-a-generation sort of thing. It's like building a home; you usually do it once."
—Tom Peeler, associate professor of biology, science building committee member
Before the first shovel of dirt was turned over, administration and faculty spent long hours with design "programmers"—professionals who help translate a riot of needs, wants and high-flying fantasies into rooms, fixtures and furniture that will help a building's occupants thrive. Mark Seely, of Strategic Building Solutions LLC, and Karen Boyd, of Butler Rogers Baskett, were charged with defining spaces that would support a growing student body, provide flexible workspace and storage, encourage collaboration and, in general, make inhabitants comfortable. Architect Gary Shane, of STV Architects Inc., and lab designer Tony Alfieri, associate principal with Perkins+Will, also joined the process.
"We started by taking a look at what [faculty and students] currently had, then talked about what their needs would be in the future," Shane says. "We started out talking to department heads, and then we talked to whole departments at a time, and then to individuals who would be using those spaces."
Along with visions of a science utopia, there were practical considerations. The former science building, Fisher Hall, had been built in the early 1960s, and an early 1990s renovation was intended to support an enrollment of about 1,350 students. With current enrollment exceeding 2,200, and laboratory science majors increasing by 66 percent over the last two decades, room to breathe was an elemental need. The way science is taught had changed, too. Conventional lecture had given way to collective inquiry, lab activity and learning by doing, but Fisher Hall wasn't designed for the new pedagogy.
"You can stand up in front of a class and deliver a lecture, where students are scribbling down every bit of perceived wisdom. That has its place," Janzen says. "But you can also have a 'guided inquiry' process, a discovery, a workshop, a seminar. Students learn best when they discover for themselves. Fisher, even the new part, was designed in a time when most science education was taught with the 'here is what you need to know' approach, a lecture approach."
The result is a number of lecture-labs in the new building, combined spaces that are part classroom, with whiteboards and multimedia equipment, and part lab, with workbenches and scientific equipment readily at hand. Instructors can talk for 15 minutes, guide students through a related experiment, have small-group discussion around an activity, and return to lecture seamlessly.
Beyond flexible teaching space, other needs surfaced that revealed common functions and activities well suited to shared rooms. Rather than request specific rooms, such as a lab or classroom, faculty members expressed their needs in terms of functions and teaching methods and let Alfieri determine how to combine like lists into spaces that accommodated several instructors and researchers, even across disciplines.
Faculty offices also invited input. "There were a lot of options, and we were asked which ones we wanted, versus [being shown to] your office in Fisher, and you lived in it," Peeler says. "We had people who were in former closets, so once you're given some choices, those become really interesting conversations."
MORE ROOM, WITH A VIEW
"This space is going to let us breathe, and grow and be better at what we already do well."
—Chris Janzen, professor of chemistry, department chair and science building committee member
Compared to their former digs, the new science building, to its thrilled occupants, is the Taj Mahal. Chemistry, Biology, and Earth and Environmental Sciences each has its own floor, rather than a corner here, a nook there. Faculty relish war stories about how cramped their lives once were.
"We had an attic overflowing with equipment and materials, and storage extending along the hallways," says Terry Winegar, professor of psychology and dean of the School of Natural and Social Sciences. "We were using offices for department meetings. We would modify spaces repeatedly, cutting a computer lab into two office spaces, turning a hallway into a student resource area. We even tried to use space in the utility closets."
"We went from five to 10 faculty in Fisher, but we still had the same space," says Tom Peeler. "So we took teaching labs and just divided them up into lab space and research space. We got to the point where we were teaching four or five different labs in one space—ecology and human anatomy and something else all in the same room. So people had to carry all their stuff in to teach, then carry it all back out, because the next person had to come in and set up."
"That laboratory wasn't well suited for a lot of the types of research that were going on," adds Janzen. "There was a great deal of cross-contamination, stuff would disappear. When you're doing trace metal analysis, it's not an ideal situation."
"Space wise, the two chemistry lab spaces that we had in Fisher would fit into half of one of our labs in this building," says Derek Straub, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences.
In the new building, glass providing both interior and exterior views gives the impression of yet more room. "Our student resource room is glassed in," says Kathy Straub, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences. "[Faculty members] keep our doors open most of the time. The glass makes everything feel very open."
"The thing I noticed right from the beginning is seeing out," Peeler says. "I just love the views, the light. A lot of science buildings are designed to be very efficient with space, because the space is so expensive; the square footage itself is much higher just for ventilation purposes. [In those buildings,] you get a square with a lot of internal rooms that have no windows. So I liked this building for that right away. Just walking through, it makes you feel good."
ADAPTABLE SPACES FOR SHARED DISCOVERY
Science is not about an individual, lone scientist deep in a dark dungeon somewhere that never sees the light of day, doing all this wonderful stuff and getting that eureka! moment. It's a very collaborative effort."
Science at Susquehanna truly is a community effort. Faculty and students collaborate with one another (every science major does at least one full year collaborative research), faculty devise joint projects, and in the new building, both share space for common pursuits. Teaching labs cluster small groups of students around a lab table. A seminar room, shared by all three science disciplines, can be divided into two separate spaces for department meetings. A faculty-student research lab is shared by several groups, with specialized prep rooms around the perimeter. Faculty offices are clustered together with student resource rooms just outside their doors, most separated by walls of glass, facilitating easy exchange.
"The cell and molecular biology research space is more or less a big, common space with specialized rooms off of it," Peeler says. "We share a lot of the same equipment, and we like the idea of students who are doing different projects talking to each other and learning that way, seeing what other people are doing. Even when Fisher was renovated, faculty at Susquehanna were mainly teachers and didn't do a lot of research. Over there, there was just one faculty research lab and one student research lab. So one big difference between Fisher and this building is how much scholarship is going on, and it's going on between faculty and students, not students over here and faculty over there."
"We have to play well together," Janzen says. "And that is one of the things that Susquehanna does better than any other place I've been associated with. The sciences play very well together. And we collaborate on research, we share resources, we support each other's needs for capital equipment."
In the new building, the cross-pollination isn't always so structured. "We designed social spaces into the building," Janzen says. "Each department has its own student resource room [next to the faculty offices]. There are computers and reference materials, but it's also a place for the students to hang out, socialize, interact, do a little bit of studying—it's their space. So we just moved the futon into the chemistry room. And it's not uncommon to have students be sound asleep on the futon."
"Collaboration takes place not only in the teaching labs, but in the corridors, the alcoves, the atrium space and the entrance space that we have in this building," Shane points out. "There are seating nooks, and the café at the base of the atrium, where there are tables and seating, and a patio that allows outdoor collaboration as well."